It is hard to believe that more than twenty years have passed since the start of my ‘formal’ herbal training. While that training has merit that garners respect in some circles, I feel even more blessed for the training I’ve received in the two decades of harvest seasons since then, spent on hands and knees, filling my baskets with jeweled blossoms and green treasures. Those seasons have added so much more depth and understanding to my ‘formal’ education. Is it appropriate to label two decades of experience as ‘informal’ education? Makes no matter. I’ll call it slow-herb learning… because while meeting many exotic new green friends might be exciting, cherishing a small handful of familiar green ones is slow, nourishing food for the soul.
Starting an herbal education at the age of 35 made me long for the many years I spent without it. I was so hungry to make up for the lifetime of knowledge that I missed. I wanted to devour more, but enjoying the gifts of the natural world cannot be satisfied by simply collecting words on paper or screen. In those twenty years, the internet exploded and provided more information than I could ever use. Social media brought me many far-flung herbal companions and their own regional plants right to my breakfast table every morning. I have often referred to myself as a woman born in the wrong century. It seems to be an ongoing theme in my life. But rather than lament that unfortunate displacement, I am finally learning to use it to my advantage. When I am feeling overwhelmed by too much technology, too many opinions, too many lectures to attend or new books to buy: I just turn it off and go outside. The immersion into the healing ways of my cultural heritage these past ten years or so, has begun to anchor me and still my awareness to the wealth of knowledge right here under my feet in Pennsylvania. Many years ago I was introduced to the ‘new concept’ of the slow-food movement, which sounded oddly reminiscent of the agrarian lifestyle in this part of Pennsylvania. I have adapted and applied some of the admirable tenets of the ‘slow movement’ to homestead herbalism and in my teaching of it to others.
*KEEP IT LOCAL & SEASONAL ~
I have simply stopped trying to keep up with the research studies of latest greatest herb flown in from far corners of the world (even the diverse corners of the 48 states). It is doubtful that my ancestors would have utilized plant medicines that they could never witness growing. They knew countless uses for fewer plants, all of which were abundant for the picking within walking distance. There are old stories of Pennsylvania herbal practitioners who made a walking pilgrimage to the Blue Mountain late every summer to harvest the finest blue-stemmed Goldenrod. These herbalists based their practices knowing how to
use goldenrod for every sort of ill that would present in the coming year. While I was trained in the uses of Chinese and Ayurvedic herbs, I have let a lot of that information slowly slip away from my grey matter. I am first and foremost, a regional herbalist who studies the plants that grow under my feet. I feel a strong commitment to sharing that with others who live here, too.
Understanding the varied, subtle tastes and energies of foods and plants is a time honored tradition from many cultures. My ancestors tastes were likely more simple than complex. They may not have
understood the proper science behind the properties of plants, but they knew how to utilize them. Ask any old timer what happens to their bodies when they eat a spoonful of horseradish in the winter or a big bowl of dandelion greens with vinegar-sweet dressing in the spring. The taste and energetic properties of plant medicines and how they actively work on our constitutional imbalances is an important piece of homestead
herbalism. This basic knowledge helps us to choose the most specific herb for the task at hand. I have an old friend who I have known over half of my life…long before herbs. Once she offered me a handful of Garden of Eatin’ Red Hot Blues chips when my stomach wasn’t feeling quite right. I thought she was crazy…
until it worked like a charm. The chips were coated with warming spices. Thirty years later, I now understand the symptoms and mechanics of cold digestion. But when you aren’t privy to a scholarly blend of warming herbs and spiced tea blends, you grab some Red Hot Blues. No science. No mystery. No schooling. No
pretense. Just the simple homestead advice of the workings of energetics from a wise elder. I got it. It stuck. (Her legendary bitter chocolate with beer advice has sailed me through a few rough seas over the
years , too, but that’s a tale for another time) A basic understanding of tastes and their effect on our bodies can carry us far. I am an herbalist who touches, tastes and sniffs. Everything. Heightened sensory perception is an important tool to hang on your belt.
*CULTIVATE A GARDEN~
or at the very least, know where your herbs grow or find somebody who can grow them for you. Not everyone is fortunate to have a few acres to plant a garden or meander upon. Anticipation to dig in the dirt feels the same to an enthusiastic gardener who has a container garden on a balcony as to one with a large plot of land. Hands tending plants can be an empowering universal pleasure. I remember being guided and encouraged in my very first garden back in the summer of 1981. It was small but it was mine and I have fond memories of it to this day. With the garden soon came the desire to preserve the harvest in jars. One phone call to my grandmother, sent her driving forty miles down the turnpike, wearing her apron, to teach me how. Guidance and encouragement are essential. My spin on the popular “Give a man a fish….”quote is this: “Give a man an herb and you may heal him for a day; teach a man to grow his own herbs and he heals his family for generations”. I am an herbalist who grows herbs and is happy to inspire, guide and share my garden with others.
*TRADITIONAL PRESERVATION: I prefer to use traditional preservation methods that are easily available to all. Trying to dry herbs properly during a humid Pennsylvania summer is a test. Learning to do it well without using electrical appliances is a skill. Herbal preservation using alcohol or vinegar, olive oil or animal fats, honey or sugar, using just a few basic recipes is easy. Knowing which preservation methods are the very best for each herb is perfecting that art to a higher level. Dare to experiment. I am an herbalist excited to share and encourage creativity in others.
Conscious seasonal selection and preparation of regional food and herbs is wonderful. Being grateful for abundance and its beneficial effects on our health adds another layer of invisible health benefits. Be conscious of the gifts of your land and be sure to leave plenty behind to multiply for next year. Be grateful for your ability to find or cultivate what you need. Have a little extra?? Give it away. Teach someone one simple thing about it. They will thank you, too. It is a wild and wonderful circle! I am an herbalist who gets great spiritual satisfaction from sharing the gifts of my land and my labor.
*DO NO HARM~
Understanding that while all plant medicines are ‘natural’ medicines, they aren’t all created equal. There are distinct categories of plant foods, plant medicines and plant poisons that need to be carefully observed. I absolutely love wild grazing, but honestly, if it needs six changes of cooking water, I’m not going to eat it (or teach you about it). Being able to identify useful and edible wild plants is an enjoyable hobby and another good tool to hang on your belt. But unless you are an experienced forager, moderation and varietal supplementation is the key. A healthy respect for proper ID and poisonous look-a-likes is essential. I strongly advise the purchase of a few field guides. Have you ever watched “Into the Wild”? Yes, I will freely admit, I am an herbalist who errs on the side of caution.
I recognize hungry desire in the students I teach every year. I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to contain it in them. Nor will I try. My advice to them is to seek and gain deeper understanding of fewer herbs every season. Observe their growth, remember where they live. Study a few reputable books. Spend a slow summer simply learning the endless varied topical applications of plants. Find local plant friends or a teacher. Encourage children by giving them three mints to grow. Make tea with it. Play with lavender. Eat violets and spruce tips. Stay off the internet searches. Search with your vision and your nose. I am an herbalist who looks down. It is the first cardinal rule: know what grows under your feet.